How To Get Work Done: Wrangling Stakeholders And Overcoming Obstacles

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Paul is a leader in conversion rate optimisation and user experience design thinking. He has over 25 years experience working with clients such as Doctors … More about Paul ↬

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Quick summary ↬ Whether you work in-house or for an external agency, we all share one challenge — dealing with stakeholders, be they your boss, colleagues, or clients. In this post, veteran web designer Paul Boag shares his approach to getting things done in even the most challenging organizations.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I could build a website from beginning to end by myself with nobody interfering. I would create the content, design the look and feel, and write the code. Nobody understood what I did, and nobody cared. It was glorious.

Today, the web has got complicated, and although I could still build a website without the help of others, it wouldn’t cut the mustard. Building a website in 2022 involves many specialists working together. It also involves the approval of many more individuals because the web has become so important.

This reality means that we need to be as good at working with others as designing or coding. We need to be team players, yet it can often prove enormously frustrating.

I want to share my thoughts on working effectively with others in this post. I also want to challenge some of our prejudices along the way. Because let’s be clear; we need other people for our websites to succeed.

Why We Need To Appreciate Our Stakeholders

We all like to moan about our clients sometimes. We all enjoy the memes about “make my logo bigger” or share the ridiculous requests we regularly receive from stakeholders. However, these people contribute a lot to the success of a website. So ultimately, we need to adopt a positive attitude toward their contributions.

That is because a lot more determines the success of a website than its design, code, or copy. The website needs to integrate successfully into broader business operations from the sales funnel to overall market positioning.

These are things that we know little about. We certainly do not have many skills in these areas and are probably ignorant about what is happening behind the scenes and in the overall company strategy.

In other words, we have a narrow perspective and a limited set of skills. We, therefore, need these other stakeholders for the website to succeed. We need to learn to understand the perspectives of others rather than mock them and call them ignorant behind their backs.

Like it or not, you need their buy-in and approval. No amount of moaning will change that. But, getting that approval will be considerably more challenging if you are dismissive of their opinions and perspective.

We will get nowhere in persuading others if we don’t appreciate what they bring to the table and even less if we end up with an acrimonious relationship.

Why Confrontation Is A Losing Game

Here is the harsh truth; you will never win an argument with a stakeholder, at least not in a way that will benefit the project. That is nothing to do with whether you are right or wrong. Facts will not win the day. It is about people and feelings.

At best, if you argue with a stakeholder, they will begrudgingly back down and probably seek to undermine you later. At worst, they will pull rank (and let’s be honest, we are relatively low in the pecking order) and refuse to compromise.

Few managers like to be argued with for long. Most do not like to see their authority challenged. Even if they win the one argument, you will quickly be seen as “difficult” if you do it too often.

Also, nobody likes to be proved wrong, especially in a public forum. Shoving facts in somebody’s face to demonstrate that you are right and they are wrong is like rubbing salt in the wound.

Finally, confrontation is binary. It leaves no room for compromise or a scenario where everybody walks away happy. There has to be a winner and a loser, which rarely ends well.

Instead, we need to adopt a more conciliatory or even passive tone.

An Alternative To Confrontation

If a client says something I disagree with, I start by acknowledging that they may be right. Then, I may ask questions about my areas of concern, but only with a genuine desire to better understand their position.

So instead of saying, “that won’t work because it will be inaccessible,” I will say something like, “that could work, but what do you think we should do about the accessibility issues?

If they don’t talk themselves out of the idea while answering my questions (which they often do), I suggest some way of testing the position they proposed. However, I do this without any suggestion that I am trying to prove them wrong. The emphasis is on carrying out a sanity check to ensure we are not missing something.

If the test proves them wrong, I am quick to express my surprise not to make them feel stupid. Because if they feel stupid, they will argue with the test results, and you will be back to square one.

Ultimately it is about helping people save face when they express an opinion that turns out to be incorrect. If they cannot save face, they will dig their heels in and keep arguing.

The best way of helping others save face is to preempt the issues they raise. If you can prove them wrong before they express the idea, they can stay quiet and not attach themselves to the position.

For example, if you know a client will want their logo bigger, start your presentation by explaining why you didn’t make the logo bigger. That way, if you are convincing, the client will not raise the issue and won’t feel the humiliation of backing down.

Of course, to preempt issues, you have to know what they are likely to be, which involves understanding your stakeholders. This ability to empathize with them is fundamental to getting their support.

More after jump! Continue reading below ↓

Use Empathy When Engaging Stakeholders

Time for another harsh truth: nobody cares about what you do as much as you. Nobody cares about code like a developer. Nobody cares about the needs of users like a UX designer. That doesn’t make them bad people. They have their areas of responsibility, which have to be their focus. After all, how much do you care about legal or accounting!

That means that phrasing any request within the context of what you do will probably fall on deaf ears. You have to frame your requests so that it resonates with your stakeholders.

Let’s imagine you want to run more usability testing. The last thing you want to do is talk about how it will give users a better experience or help you do your job.

Instead, it would be best to frame how usability testing will help the people you are trying to persuade. For example, if you are trying to persuade a marketing manager, talk about how better usability will encourage more word-of-mouth recommendations. If you talk to the finance director, talk about how usability testing avoids waste and building the wrong thing. If you talk to legal, explain how usability testing will ensure the company meets its accessibility obligations.

Also, consider the type of person they are. Some people are more influenced by numbers and facts; others are driven by emotion. How you pitch your requests should cater to these differences.

When talking to an analytical thinker, make use of the unprecedented amounts of data digital provides to make your case. When dealing with an emotional thinker, paint a picture of what better might look like with a small prototype or show users struggling with the existing experience.

Work With Key Stakeholders Individually

For this approach to succeed, you need to divide and conquer. Once you are in a meeting discussing these things, you cannot tailor the message to each attendee. Also, you will quickly lose control of the discussion.

Instead, meet with each attendee beforehand and present your case. Then, you will already have them on board when the group meeting happens, and the meeting will be a formality.

Of course, not all stakeholders are equal. Sometimes you don’t need to win over everybody. One key decision-maker can often be enough. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore other people as that can come back to bite us.

How To Work With Lots Of Stakeholders

It is tempting if you have high-level executive support to push ahead with work and essentially ignore the opinions of other stakeholders. However, doing so will create problems for yourself further down the line.

The more stakeholders feel ignored, the angrier they will become and the more trouble they will cause. So it is better to engage with as many people as possible, even if they don’t have much power to influence the process.

That means we need to consider our communication strategy when running any digital project. It is not enough to think about how we will build our digital service; we also need to work out how we will sell it to others.

We have already discussed how to do this on a one-to-one basis, but a different approach will be required when we have many stakeholders.

I use four techniques to work with many stakeholders and ensure their buy-in. Although I still customize my approach for critical stakeholders, these techniques are a solid foundation for a broader communication strategy with other stakeholders. These are:

Keep Stakeholders Regularly Informed

If people feel left in the dark, they become irritated. They also feel out of control and interfere to take control back. However, if you keep them informed regularly, they feel appreciated and are less likely to interfere.

Another advantage of regular communication is that it gives a sense of progress. People will worry less that the project is slipping behind if they hear from you regularly. Keep in contact with your clients regularly through email. Also, record the occasional video walkthrough and hold the odd zoom call to answer questions.

Excite Stakeholders By Inspiring Them

Many projects fail because they lose momentum. They get stuck in politics and discussion. One of the best ways to create momentum is to get people excited about what you are doing.

Take the time to show them how things will be better when your project is done. For example, map the improved customer experience or create a prototype showing how it will work in the future.

Do whatever it takes to fire people up so that they want what you are building.

That is also a great way of overcoming barriers. For example, imagine somebody in IT has told you that the interface you are proposing is impossible because of legacy technology. Instead of giving up, create a prototype and record some users getting excited about it. Then show that to senior management. The next thing you know, senior management will ask why they can’t have the exciting prototype they have seen, and IT will be under pressure to deliver.

Take The Time To Educate

Education should lie at the heart of any communication strategy you adopt with stakeholders. We work in a highly specialized field utterly unknown to many people. Therefore, if they fail to buy into our vision, it will certainly be because they don’t fully understand it.

It is not their responsibility to understand our job any more than it is our responsibility to understand theirs. Instead, it is our job to educate them. If they fail to understand, then we have failed to do our job. It is our fault, not theirs.

So take time to teach others. Share with them sources of best practices you have found online, explain the rationale behind decisions, and expose them to external sources of advice and inspiration.

Run lunchtime presentations, drop-in clinics, email newsletters, and even consider running an in-house conference. Anything you can think of to ensure your colleagues are better informed about the web.

Finally, one of the best ways for stakeholders to learn is to do.

Always Involve Stakeholders

The best thing you can do to win over stakeholders is to involve them in the creation process. Not only will being involved educate them about what works and what doesn’t, but it also provides them a sense of ownership. The more people feel they have contributed, the more they are likely to support it and even defend it to others.

There are many ways to involve stakeholders, from design sprints to prototyping workshops. However, even surveying or interviewing stakeholders is a start.

Involving stakeholders and not shutting them out will make sign-off easier. It will also make you more aware of the project’s broader context and hopefully make you appreciate your colleagues more.

Ultimately we cannot change our stakeholders, but we can change ourselves. We can change our attitude towards them, change how we communicate with them, and reevaluate what we see our role as being.

Our industry likes to celebrate the lone genius, the rockstar, or the ninja. Yet, in reality, a rockstar is too arrogant for the web and a ninja too isolated. Building great websites is a team sport, and our stakeholders are very much part of the team.

Smashing Editorial (vf, il)